Concert review: John Zorn’s Metropolitan Museum Marathon (9/28/2013)

I’ve been to a number of concerts that called themselves “marathons.” I’ve been to all-day festivals. I’ve been to multiple concerts in one night (sometimes in two different cities). I’ve even been to a couple of Zorn marathons in museums. But this? This beat them all. Twelve sets over ten and a half hours, from the minute the museum doors opened to the time it closed. Each one in a different room, paired with or inspired by a particular piece of art or architecture. I suspect this is a record that will never be broken (for the sake of my health, if nothing else!). In short, this was The Big One. I had been so excited about it in advance that I’d researched the locations and created an overlay on a map of the museum with a list of performances and times, so I could print it out and know where everything was without having to figure it out on the day of the show. And if you think THAT is obsessive, you probably don’t want to know about the “Zorn Reconnaissance Mission” that I went on with a friend a few days earlier to check out all the rooms, view the art in advance, figure out the best viewing angles, acoustics, etc. (I’d learned from ZoRN@MoMA that it was actually quite difficult to appreciate the artwork on the day of the performances, since the rooms were so crowded that you often couldn’t get near the piece in question.) We were well-prepared and determined to eke out every last drop of the experience.

We showed up at 9:30 in the morning to be at the front of the line for a 10AM performance, and the music didn’t end until 8:30 at night, eleven hours after we arrived. We saw fourteen separate performances. I made it through the entire day on a few granola bars and water. I had gone in with the idea that I would have a nice sit-down lunch break and skip a performance just to keep myself sane, but in the end I never got desperate enough to do it and I just pushed through the whole day.

We entered the museum within seconds of the doors opening at ten o’clock, knowing that there was a trumpet fanfare (Opening Antiphonal Fanfare for Six Trumpets) planned for 10AM in the entrance hall. We didn’t know exactly where it would be, so as we picked up our tickets we were distractedly looking around everywhere for evidence of trumpet players. I didn’t see any, but did spot John Zorn, Erik Friedlander (who was scheduled for an 11AM solo performance) and a bevy of museum staff members wearing “ZORN AT THE MET” T-shirts. I also spotted a few friends, some of whom would be joining us for the entire day and some who just wanted to see a couple of events in the morning. We anxiously milled around, waiting, wondering if we should move on to the Temple of Dendur where there was a performance scheduled at 10:15. But we figured as long as John Zorn was in the room, we probably wouldn’t miss anything. I think they realized that there was a long line of people outside and they should wait until everyone was in the room before starting the fanfare, so as not to disappoint the fans who had been waiting.

Finally at 10:08AM, we heard trumpets! Up in the balcony on the north side of the entrance hall, the fanfare was performed (and conducted – I think it was David Fulmer again). I couldn’t see them, but the program listed the trumpeters as Nate Botts, Wayne DuMaine, Gareth Flowers, Josh Frank, Stephanie Richards, and Tim Leopold. I was vaguely expecting something bold, simple, and short, but of course that wouldn’t be very Zornesque. It was a complex and interesting piece that went on for several minutes. I’d love to have a recording of it so I could hear it again – I was so excited and full of anticipation that I had a hard time focusing. I also kept wanting to shush people in the entrance hall because they were talking while I was trying to listen, but of course things don’t work that way in a museum – many people were only there to see the art and had no idea who John Zorn is or what the trumpets were for. (A friend pondered whether or not some of the tourists would just assume that every morning at the Met is started with a trumpet fanfare from the balcony in the Great Hall. It would be a pretty cool tradition to start!)

After the fanfare ended, we hurried (politely, because we were in a museum) to the Temple of Dendur and I found myself a spot in front of the stage they’d set up. The room is magnificent – absolutely enormous, with the stone temple standing in the middle, surrounded by stone walkways and a large moat. The ceiling is several stories high, and the north wall of the room is made entirely of glass, letting in natural light and giving a view of Central Park. The music started a few minutes later than scheduled since the fanfare got us off to a late start, but it was well worth the wait – Bill Frisell on electric guitar, Carol Emanuel on harp, and Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, performing pieces from Zorn’s Gnostic Preludes, some of his prettiest, sweetest, most beautiful work. It won’t do justice to the acoustics and sound quality of the room, but I did take a little video of one of the pieces they played. (Also, this is absolutely the worst angle from which you could ever see this room, but take my word for it – it’s really gorgeous and grand.)

After the Gnostic Preludes, a museum staff member speed-walked the growing Zorn-fan mob upstairs to the Sackler Gallery for Assyrian Art for the 11AM set: Erik Friedlander performing solo cello pieces from Volac, part of Zorn’s Book of Angels series. It was another magnificent room, although much smaller than the Temple of Dendur. In the Sackler Gallery the walls were made of stone carvings from the 6th century B.C., and the doorway which framed Friedlander as he played was flanked by statues of lamassu (human-headed winged animal deity type things – you can see them clearly below). The room was pretty much full of people when he started playing, and as always he performed a beautiful set. I hadn’t planned on filming one of his pieces since I got a nice video of him playing at the Walker in April, but it was such a great room and I had a good vantage-point, so I decided to go ahead and shoot one anyway:

The next room was back downstairs in the Medieval Sculpture Hall for a new-ish piece I’d never heard performed before, The Holy Visions. It is an all-female vocal group consisting of Jane Sheldon, Sarah Brailey, Abby Fischer, Mellissa Hughes, and Kirsten Sollek. I couldn’t get a good recording here because we were too far back in the crowd, but I snapped a photo of the setting:

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I liked the pieces they sang, although I think I liked the Madrigals pieces we saw two evenings earlier a bit better. Holy Visions seems a bit more challenging, both for listener and singer, so maybe it is one of those things that will grow on me when I hear it a few times; it’s supposed to be released fairly soon, I think. It was unfortunately a little bit hard to hear the Holy Visions since it was quite a large room full of people and it was a bit noisy for unamplified a cappella singing.

I wanted to hurry especially for the next performance because on the map it looked like it was a rather small room, and there were quite a few Zorn fans following the music around by this point in the day – I was worried that we wouldn’t all fit. Zorn explained at the beginning of the piece that he had chosen a small room because it was chamber music, and chamber music is meant to be played unamplified in small rooms like the one we were in. (I really appreciated that almost every piece all day was performed acoustic – there’s just something really pure about hearing music with no electronics in between the instrument and your ears, and it’s a rare experience these days for a lot of people.) The piece was a string trio with some musicians we were familiar with from the concerts at the Miller earlier in the week – Chris Otto on violin; Dave Fulmer on viola; and Jay Campbell on cello. I took a photo of the room, it came out a bit blurry because I would never in a million years use a camera flash during a concert and the violist moves around a lot when he plays (he was almost as fun to watch on viola as he was conducting the orchestra on Wednesday night).

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The piece performed was All Hallows’ Eve, which will be on one of the three releases that Zorn has slated for November. (…yes, you read that right, he is releasing three albums in November.) It was, as you might expect, an impressively virtuoso performance – I realized during this piece that Zorn had been kind of ramping up the challenge level throughout the day so far, from the sweet and beautiful Gnostic Preludes, the melodic and elegant Volac, the slightly-more-difficult Holy Visions, and now the fiendish All Hallows’ Eve. If I’m being totally honest with my readers, I have to say that this was a piece that I need to listen to more than once before I can competently talk about it. Especially when the one time I listened to it was in the midst of an incredible amount of challenging new music. I’m not always that good at wrapping my head around new music on the first listen.

The gradual progression towards more difficult music led perfectly into the next performance, which was one of the most heavily-attended of the day: John Zorn and Milford Graves performing a wholly improvised set in front of a big Jackson Pollock drip painting. The room was very hot and crowded so I opted to lean against a wall out of the way a bit, meaning I didn’t get to look at the painting they were performing in front of… but I’ve seen it a couple of times before, so I figured that would be OK. I had a slightly peculiar rear view of the proceedings:

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I’d seen this duo once before, also in front of a Pollock drip painting, and this time they played more aggressively, more abrasively, with more of the typical Zorn squawk-and-squeal style. Probably what people wanted to hear, and there did seem to be a lot of people who turned up especially to see him play. (I talked to a few disappointed folks later in the day who said they’d come especially for that set and were turned away, since that room plus another overflow room were too full.) This was my first real challenge of the day – mentally and physically. We’d been in the museum for over four hours, the rooms were getting increasingly crowded and stuffy as more and more fans turned up to watch, and all of the standing and sitting on hard floors was making me ache. (It also turned out I was coming down with a bit of a bug, so I suppose that was part of it.) Aside from the physical strains of the day, the music was starting to overwhelm me as well (I’d been pushing it pretty hard on the concert front, with ten concerts in the previous nine days). I was a little worried about how I would fare for another six hours or so.

Luckily the next room was much larger and airier, and I found the music much easier to deal with. In fact, it was one of my very favorite sets of the day: Dark River and Gris Gris, performed by William Winant and Alex Lipowski. I sneaked a granola bar and some water before the set started and combined with having a bit more air to breathe, I started feeling a lot better. I (rather brilliantly, if I do say so myself) picked a seemingly awkward place to sit, directly in between the two percussion kits, which were 10-15 feet apart with just enough space in the middle for about ten people to sit. But that meant we were nice and close to both of the performances without having our ears two feet from a giant drum, so it was pretty perfect. It took place in the Melanesia Gallery, which was breathtaking and really ideal for the pieces that were performed (John Zorn also told us the room was haunted, for what it’s worth). (You can see a photo of the room on this page.)

The first piece, Dark River, was a duet, played on four large bass drums. It’s a very quiet, subtle piece, and I found the experience extraordinary – to be sitting on the floor so close to those drums, and feeling the drumbeats as much as hearing them, the subtle rhythms running through me. Wow. I loved it. Drums like that are so difficult to reproduce when you’re playing back a recording at home, and it was so special to hear and see this piece live in a setting like that. There was also (for me, anyway) a lot of subversion of expectations – some part of my brain was absolutely yearning to hear those drums getting hit hard and loud, but it never came. Complete restraint. The second piece was a solo performance by Winant, played on 13 tuned drums and a kick drum. This was a less subtle piece, but still very beautiful – I loved this one too. The exotic rhythms meshed so well with the artwork and architecture of the room, you just had to sit back for a moment and admire the thought that Zorn had put into every aspect of this day of performances. This whole set was, for me, pretty much perfect in every way. The two percussion pieces the night before at the game pieces concert were my favorites, too – I must have really been in the mood for drums! Here’s a pic of the drums used for Gris Gris, just to give you an idea of the setting:

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My map of the museum showed that the next performance location was a relatively small room, so we went straight there as fast as we could without breaking museum protocol – no running in the halls, no knocking over any art, etc. (I did get nearly mown down by someone trying to get to the 2PM Zorn/Graves set a little faster, so apparently not everyone got that memo.) I ended up in the front row (awkwardly close, really) in front of the painting that Zorn had selected as the featured piece of art for this performance, Balthus’ “The Mountain” (click here to see it). I like a lot of modern/abstract/weird art, but I found this painting odd in a slightly unsettling way. And the more I looked at it, the odder it seemed.

There were two separate performances in this room; the first was Earthspirit, with three of the female vocalists from the Holy Visions that we saw before (Jane Sheldon, Mellissa Hughes, Kirsten Sollek). This piece was premiered a few months ago at the Guggenheim, but I hadn’t seen it, so it was new to me. I think, like All Hallows’ Eve, I will need some more listens to really get a grasp on it. I did feel that it worked very well with the Balthus painting, the oddness of the painting and the challenging vocals seemed to fit together somehow. It was also interesting to hear how surprisingly powerful their voices were when I was sitting so close, after having heard the Holy Visions from quite far away. The second piece was Passagen, a solo violin piece performed by Pauline Kim. I’d seen this performed before, and I liked this performance better, I think. Everyone was very impressed – “virtuoso” is once again the only word that seems to fit. There is a nice recording of it on Zorn’s “Lemma” album. I definitely recommend it if you like his compositions for violins.

The next performance, at 5PM, was located in the Velez Blanco Patio, a very interesting room in the Met with a balcony overlooking the main space. I believe it is often used for private cocktail parties and dinners and that sort of thing. We saw Mycale perform there, the day’s second performance of Masada material (the first was Erik Friedlander at 11AM, playing pieces from “Volac”). Mycale performed some pieces from their Book of Angels album along with a piece or two I didn’t recognize, which I think is from an upcoming release. Mycale is another all-female vocal group (Zorn has been writing a lot of these pieces lately!) consisting of Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei, Malika Zarra, and Sara Serpa. We stood up in the balcony to get a view of the whole room (and it was also nice to have a railing to lean on after having been in the museum for 7-8 hours). I took a video of one of the pieces, which also accidentally features Bruce of Downtown Music Gallery leaning on the back wall. (Downtown Music Gallery is where all the cool kids get their Zorn CDs, if you didn’t know.) The unamplified vocals weren’t quite powerful enough all the way in the back of the room where we were standing, but it still sounded good.

By the time the 6PM set rolled around, we were starting to feel pretty good about things – sure, I hadn’t eaten a real meal all day and we were really tired, but we only had three sets left, one of which was going to be less than 10 minutes long and in a really big room. (By this point in the day, we knew that big rooms were the easy ones, because it wouldn’t be packed and stuffy and crowded with Zorn fans.) The 6PM set was the last really crowded room – I suspect people were turned away at the door but I was sitting on the opposite side of the room so I can’t say for sure. I ended up sitting right in the front row very close to the string quartet: Pauline Kim (who we’d just seen perform Passagen) on violin; Jesse Mills on violin; Dave Fulmer on viola; and Jay Campbell on cello. Zorn had wanted this piece, The Alchemist, performed in front of a particular painting, but they wouldn’t let him use that room, so we were in the room next door instead. (We did make a point to peer into the next room and check out the painting, which you can see by clicking here.) This piece was one of my favorites of the day, really exciting and, I keep saying it, but virtuosic. Zorn has found such an incredible group of musicians to play his works, and then he writes works specifically to challenge them; it’s hard not to comment on their technical skill on every piece. You can find performances of the Alchemist on Youtube if you are interested in hearing it.

At 7PM we headed back to the enormous room containing the Temple of Dendur for the second-to-last performance of the night. We took our time getting there (read: took a much-needed bathroom break) and when we arrived we were greeted by the biggest crowd of the day, by far. The performance was a solo vocal performance by Mike Patton, performing Litany IV from Six Litanies for Heliogabalus. We were already familiar with the piece and therefore knew that this enormous crowd of people had gathered for what was essentially eight minutes of a man doing very strange things with his voice. I think what had happened was that the Zorn-fan crowd that had been there all day had merged with the Patton-fan crowd that had come especially for this (maybe not being familiar with the Zorn-composed piece) and the size of the crowd had attracted other random museum-goers who thought “wow, there’s 600 people here, it must be for something really good!” John Zorn surely realized this, and introduced the piece by saying it was a challenging piece that he felt was a very strong composition, and it was meant to be about a Roman Emperor renowned for his eccentricity and decadence. He added that he didn’t mean any offense to the Egyptian gods by performing it in their temple, but the museum had suggested the room was the only one big enough for the crowd they anticipated (which was quite correct – see my photo below).

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The end result of all this was that quite a few people got up and left after a minute or two of Mike Patton screaming, growling, gagging, choking and spitting on the stage. But most of them stayed. I have no idea if most of them liked it, because after seeing the crowds of people turned away from the earlier Zorn performance, we were taking no chances with his 8PM Hermetic Organ set and left as soon as Patton finished, getting to the Arms and Armor Court as quickly as we could and staking out a spot where we would have at least a bit of a view of the pipe organ. There’s not much to see since the pipe organ is in the balcony and we were on the floor, but it’s always nice to have something to look at. Plus, we got to look at the cool horses and stuff!

hermeticorgan

For some reason the museum staff decided to crack down at this point (maybe they were irrationally afraid of the Mike Patton fans who’d all shown up at 7 for his performance?) and they said if we wanted to stay for the pipe organ performance, we had to sit on the floor, and we could not stand. It was 7:20 when we arrived, which meant that we had forty minutes of sitting on a hard marble floor before it even started, and then another 20-30 minutes of sitting on the hard marble floor while he played. That was rough, in our tenth hour of being in the museum, we’d been aching for hours from sitting on hard floors and now we had to do it for an hour straight on the hardest floor of all. So much leg pain! So little blood circulation! Argh.

In spite of all that, it was worth it – the Hermetic Organ performance he did was really fun. I’ve seen three performances previously and this was quite different than the rest of them. He might have been getting as loopy as the rest of us after being there all day, because a few times he jumped up from the console and left the room for a minute (while letting the organ continue to play). We’re not really sure what he was doing since we couldn’t see where he went. (I was kind of secretly hoping he would either sneak out of the building as a joke on us to see how long we’d sit and wait for him to come back, or run around to the other side of the room so he would pop up behind us and shout “BOO!”) He also threw in several horror-movie-style evil maniacal laughs, which were just about the best thing I ever heard. We were all cracking up laughing while trying not to make any noise. After a long day of challenging music it was good to see him displaying such a sense of humor and also good to break the tension of a 25-minute drama-filled pipe organ performance. I took a not-very-good film of it (as I said, there’s not much to see anyway) because I had a lot of battery life left on my camera, so why not:

If you watch to the end you’ll see Zorn’s rather triumphant bow and a big round of applause. (If you’re just in it for the maniacal laughter, that’s around 9:30-11:00…) I’m not sure if what he got was so much a standing ovation or if it was just an excuse to stop sitting on the marble floor, but it was well-deserved nonetheless. If we weren’t so exhausted we probably would have been stamping our feet and chanting and cheering and all that stuff. (Also, it feels weird to make lots of noise like that in a museum.) It was such a legendary day. I feel like I’ll never do anything like it again in my life. If Zorn ever tops it, I will be amazed.

I want to thank (and congratulate) everyone involved: John Zorn, all the musicians, the behind-the-scenes folks who set everything up before we got there, the Metropolitan Museum, and all of the “ZORN AT THE MET” T-shirt wearing staff members who were so helpful and friendly to us all day. (Although we never did convince any of them to give us one of those cool T-shirts!) It must have been an incredible challenge to pull off an event like this almost flawlessly – it was beautifully organized. Thank you all so much for this gift.

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5 Responses to Concert review: John Zorn’s Metropolitan Museum Marathon (9/28/2013)

  1. Luca says:

    Thank you Colonel! Quite a better than the real thing experience!!

  2. This is an awesome account – thank you soooo much

  3. Susan Vallee says:

    Wonderful account of the day. Felt like I was there!

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